Syria's 'ghost refugees' struggle for survival in no man's land

Story highlights

  • The berm lies along Jordan's northeastern border with war-torn Syria
  • The area has been closed off by the Jordanian military after an ISIS attack
  • Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees are pouring into this 'no man's land'

Amman, Jordan (CNN)In a patch of desert largely unseen by the outside world, a humanitarian emergency is unfolding with tens of thousands of people trying to survive in miserable conditions.

Aid agencies call it "the berm" -- essentially a rocky, largely uninhabitable no-man's land on Jordan's northeastern frontier with Syria.
    As Jordan tightened border controls late last year and restricted access, Syrian refugees, mostly from the besieged cities of Homs and Aleppo began accumulating in a makeshift settlement in this remote region -- known as Rukban. Aid groups estimate there are more than 75,000 people, mostly women and children, stranded there now.
    As the numbers of those fleeing the violence in Syria grew, aid agencies tried to increase their operations in the area, but that ended on June 21 after an ISIS suicide bombing struck a nearby military outpost killing at least six Jordanian troops. 

    Sealed off

    The attack shook Jordan, a nation known for its stability in a turbulent region. The military sealed off the area and declared it a closed zone. 
    For almost three months, aid agencies have not been allowed to access the berm. 
    But after negotiations with the Jordanian government, an agreement was reached allowing a one-time delivery of food and hygiene kits.
    It's not easy -- barbed wired around the berm meant the World Food Program had to use cranes to make that aid drop into the berm, where the refugees were huddled. 
    "It's not a refugee camp, there's no intrinsic water supply. There's been one food drop since the ISIS attack and that was intended to last 30 days, running out on September 2, Natalie Thurtle, a medical team leader with Doctors Without Borders (MSF) told CNN.
    Many of the refugees are children and the elderly
    "There is no meaningful sanitation there, no protection, no access to healthcare and so you've basically got 75 to 80,000 people sitting there. They can't go back they cant come forward into Jordan.
    "They are not really even permitted to exist where they are so they are sort of being insidiously phased out of existence -- almost like ghosts. They're not seen and they are not recognized by any entity," she added.

    Deaths, widespread illness 

    Aid agencies, like MSF, have been speaking to sources in the berm and documenting medical cases. They have also receiving reports of deaths.
    "We've seen pictures that are sent purportedly from inside the berm," said Thurtle. "We've seen videos and we have had contact with those people ... I am confident in saying there is a water and food-borne hepatitis outbreak which was not there when we were operational.
    "We only saw six cases of jaundice in the whole time we were working in the berm and now there's credible reports from inside the berm of 30 cases a day. There has been a number of reports of deaths and we don't know whether this is hepatitis A or E. In Hepatitis E you have the issue of up to 20 or 25% mortality in third trimester pregnant women, so we don't know what's happening because we don't have access."
    The refugees are living in appalling conditions
    A local tribal group in the area -- known as the Tribal Council of Palmyra and Badia -- published a video showing a makeshift graveyard purportedly containing dozens of bodies of those who have died at the berm. 
    Satellite images obtained by Amnesty International shows the site of a graveyard near the refugee tents.  No one knows how many have died. 
    Prior to the ISIS attack in June, access for journalists was limited to a group media trip organized by the Jordanian Armed Forces. But CNN's requests to visit the berm after this were denied by the Jordanian military, who cited security reasons. 
    Through Syrian activists in Turkey, CNN was able to reach an activist in the berm who used a cell phone to film the dire conditions -- and we heard from refugees. 
    Satellite image shows the increasing number of makeshift tents
    Many of those refugees, uncertain about their fate, were reluctant to speak on camera but they pleaded for help.  We received dozens of video clips, many showing mothers holding their children exhibiting signs of malnutrition, and others of elderly people and other refugees with various medical conditions. 
    One man shows the camera his emaciated young son. "He hasn't eaten in four days -- we are starving, we haven't received food since they brought us some rice more than 40 days ago," the father said. 
    Aid groups warn that without access it's hard to assess the real scale of the suffering here. 
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    "This is a very critical humanitarian emergency ... this population is not visible, nobody has access to them and so it's easy to forget that they are there," said Thurtle.
    "You have 80,000 people sitting there with no food and minimal water and no healthcare. There are unnecessary deaths everyday in the berm ... so it is critical and we do need to have access and it needs to happen now -- it needs to happen yesterday."
    Jordan, a country of limited resources, has taken in more than one million Syrians, according to government figures, with more than 600,000 of them registered as refugees. 

    ISIS enclave

    "We are in continuous discussions with international aid agencies regarding this issue, and we continue to emphasize Jordan's legitimate security concerns and the best way that aid can be delivered," Jordan's Minister of State for Media Affairs, Mohammed al-Momani, said in a statement to CNN.
    "We also emphasize that this is an international problem, not Jordan's problem, and there are several options through which aid can be delivered without jeopardizing security concerns.
    "This is becoming a Daesh (ISIS) enclave on our borders and the security of Jordanian people supersedes any other concern."
    But the lack of aid and miserable living conditions have not stopped the flow of desperate refugees arriving at the berm.  Satellite images have showed a steady increase in the population at the berm in recent months. Time is running out.